So, I gave myself a subscription for British newspaper archive as a Christmas present. That homepage is 100% addictive. Choosing a distillery totally at random from opening my copy of Brian Townsend’s indispensable Scotch Missed, I happen to delve into the brief history of Gartloch distillery. This was a grain distillery near Garnkirk, the odd nine miles northeast of the centre of Glasgow. My edition of Scotch Missed has it as built in 1897, claims DCL bought it in 1920 and closed it immediately.
The newspaper clippings change that. DCL bought both Gartloch as well as Bo’ness a year later, in 1921. That is also what is said in the often-reliable The Scotch whisky industry record by H. Charles Craig.
Both Craig and Townsend have the distillery as closed more or less immediately by DCL after purchase.
Again, the wonders of British newspaper archive continue: it turns out Gartloch distillery did not cease production until way later, on December 3, 1927. I further find evidence of some accounting shenanigans and despicably unscrupulous behaviour from the founders, Northern Distilleries Limited. This was the company which just about succeeded in the build and in getting the distillery on stream before they went bankrupt in 1900. It is quite obvious that they were not wholly serious players, hoping to profiteer from the 1890s whisky boom and then suffering from its bust just as the distillery was being built.
Later and under the new ownership, there were some reoccurring problems with rank smells in the local sewage emanating from Gartloch’s production. Then there are the sad but expected stories of accidents in the press: an employee is electrocuted in an accident; another severely scalded when falling into a tank; yet another falls from a great height and injures himself quite seriously. In the 1920s, a curious and for the owners obviously embarrassing legal dispute pops up. Apparently, the distillery management for DCL hired underage schoolgirls to do night shifts in the distillery. As ever, newspapers are a great window into the past, as long as one bears in mind that it’s the accidents and the extreme events which make their way to become ink on paper.
So, just based on the newspapers, Gartloch distillery’s history is slightly altered. In short, it becomes something like this: founded in 1897, built around 1898–1900. In production for the first time in 1900. 1902–1921 owned and managed by James Calder & Co. Bought by DCL in 1921. Mothballed in December of 1927, demolished in 1935.
But now my appetite for all things Gartloch distillery-related has been whetted. Where exactly was it located? I read Townsend’s tricky description, but I still don’t get it. Hours spent on Google Earth and the fantastic possibilities of the National Library of Scotland’s pages help me to finally pinpoint Gartloch’s exact location. This side by side comparison is probably the best for showing exactly where the distillery was.
This link on Google Maps will take you to the area (the distillery site covered almost all of those woodlands). After a little more time, I find the one Ordnance survey map with quite a lot of detail on it, printed in 1914, also used by Townsend. It even has the railway siding built for the distillery for easier access to Garnkirk station and the railway between Glasgow and Perth, the filter beds and the cottages built for distillery workers:
So now I know more details of Gartloch’s history and I know exactly where it was located. Let’s head over to Canmore and flickr and other sites to catch a few photos of the remains of the distillery and even the odd photo of when it was in full production around 1910. (Townsend has a great photo of the distillery in production from around 1920 but that one is from Diageo’s archive and I would have to get permission to use it here.) Canmore has two aerial shots taken in 1935 when the production buildings had just been razed, but with the offices and warehouses still standing (here and here). Again I have to try to understand the geography of the place, and then getting it – ah OK, the lake in the background (not shown in the cropped image below) is Bishop lake, with the asylum! I am already becoming familiar with this rural neck of the woods. One needs to zoom in in order to really see the remains of the distillery in these old shots:
Wait, let’s backtrack – it was open until 1927? So maybe, maybe it’s in The Book? I take out my copy of the James Eadie book The distilleries of Great Britan & Ireland: A journey through the heartlands of whisky, 1922–1929 and indeed, there is a full report on Gartloch in there. It had a staff of around 160, was apparently in full production, you get details about the stills, the size of washbacks, the boilers, the production of yeast – everything. Unfortunately no photographs and the same obsession with naming and measuring equipment as was Barnard’s main affliction, but still, a detailed report on the workings of Gartloch. The article was published in The Wine and Spirits Trade late in July of 1927. Gartloch distillery was only going to be producing spirit roughly another four months before DCL would mothball the whole plant.
While the production buildings were demolished, the massive warehouses were kept in use by DCL:s subsidiary Scottish Grain Distillers into some time in the 1980s. Here is a photo snapped by the ever-important Scotch whisky historian John Hume back in 1980, from Canmore. The offices still remain intact beside the warehouses. Some sources have these warehouses as having burned down in the same year this photo was taken, others have them demolished in 1987. The notion of a fire seems a little spurious – would that not have made the news? If so, I suspect I would have found it in the British newspaper archive.
There are still some remains of the distillery. What these actually are is a little difficult to guess at, from what little can be found at flickr and also Ian Hodgson’s photos published publicly on Facebook. Are these the lower levels of those warehouses? Are they all part of that square building at the southeastern end of the distillery complex? For example, here is a photo which Brian Cairns took in 2012 and uploaded to flickr – I hope he will be OK with me publishing it here as long as it carries this accreditation:
I was only going to look at a random distillery for fun. About ten to twelve hours’ work later, and I now feel I absolutely must visit the place. I really need to take that walk past the old reservoir through the woodlands that have emerged and taken over the old distillery site, to see if I can understand if those remains are from the Inland Revenue or mainly the foundations of the old warehouses. I need to see this site for myself. Because those production buildings really do seem utterly razed in those aerial shots taken just after razing in 1935…? And by the way, those maltings that were installed in 1919, they were drum maltings, right? So where did DCL take them? Were all of the distillery cottages built for the employees really razed in the 1990s, or are some of them still there? Lots of answers given give lots of questions.
(By the way, when googling Gartloch, a news story pops up. It concerns the oldest known bottle of Glenfarclas and it (the story, not the bottle) is from 2018. The bottle is said to be almost 100 years old, with the distillery having shut down in 1920 and the bottle having been given as a gift for Gartloch’s final manager, Stephen Dowell, upon Gartloch’s closure. So now that we know the distillery actually was mothballed in 1927 not 1920, and with a definitive closure with razing in 1935, that bottle is still just shy of a hundred years old…)
After having looked at its history, I find I really care a lot about Gartloch. What happened to the people who worked there? And perhaps more importantly: do I even dare look at another distillery in the British newspaper archive…?!?!